Hungry Like the Wolf

Disclaimer: Characters from Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel: the Series are property of Joss Whedon, Mutant Enemy, Kuzui Enterprises, Sandollar Television, the WB, and UPN.

Part II

He came down the stairs with a folding chair under one arm, his free hand holding a paper sack. Nina stood up and advanced to the cage door; he was glad but not surprised to see that she was properly clothed now, in jeans and a loose shirt, even a pair of sneakers. “I’d know that smell even if I couldn’t see the logo,” she said. “You seriously found a McDonald’s in London?”

“Yep,” Xander agreed. Disregarding the tape line, he approached close enough to hand her the bag. “I’d make the obligatory joke about them calling it MacDougal’s over here, but Malcolm McDowell already pulled that one.” At her blank look, he said, “Old movie, Time After Time. Well, not old old, but 1979, back when Mary Steenburgen seems to have been vaguely babe-e-licious. And I could go on to demonstrate twenty times the geekishness I already have, but we’ve got other things we need to be talking about.”

“Oh.” Nina took the bag, returned to the bunk to take a seat. “So when I was, was wolfed out, did I —?”

“No, no,” Xander said, waving it away. He opened out the folding chair and sat down, still well within her reach if she had felt like making a grab for him through the bars. (Demonstration of trust, calculated risk, whatever.) “At least, not that we could find, and from the timeline we’ve built up, it looks like you were caught less than ten minutes after you split from the theater. Our people are spinning up some spellworks that’ll give us a better idea, but for now we’re thinking we got lucky there.” He sighed. “No, the complications we’re looking at … Well, they come down basically to two things. First is the fact that you changed outside the full-moon cycle. That had the guys upstairs wondering if you might be something besides a standard werewolf. Anything to that?”

“Honestly, I don’t know.” Nina opened the McDonald’s bag and pulled out a wrapped packet (that would be the quarter-pounder), but held it while she went on. “I’m not really part of any, um, community, the only thing I know about werewolves is what Angel told me.”

“Right,” Xander said. “Angel. That’s sort of the second thing: officially, you were part of some kind of ‘research project’ at Wolfram & Hart’s L.A. offices.” At her puzzled expression, he said, “That’s … not a good name in our circles. We count them as the bad guys. As in, not just our opposition, but bad people doing bad things for bad reasons. Which is, you know, bad.”

Nina’s expression went blank, and then her lips compressed. “All I know is how they treated me. They found me, protected me, explained what had happened, rescued me when — … Well, nobody did anything wrong that I ever saw.” She set the wrapped burger down on the fold-down cot. “You’ve been straight with me, so I’m withholding judgment … but if you try to tell me Angel was evil, that’s more likely to hurt your case than his as far as I’m concerned.”

There was a very familiar undertone, not just to her words but to how she was saying them, and Xander sighed again. Women and vampires … Anne Rice had not done the world any favors, not when the real thing was around to take advantage of the romantic schlock. “Me and Angel were never best buds,” he said to her. “Never close, and never gonna be. But we’re not down on Wolfram & Hart because he was in charge of it: we’re suspicious of him and his people because they went in with W&H.” He leaned forward, speaking with low, earnest intensity. “Me and my friends … used to be, there were four of us at the core, and at one time or another he saved all our lives. I didn’t like him and I didn’t trust him and that hasn’t changed, but I put my life in his hands more than once, and he always held up his end. Wolfram & Hart, though: they’re not just evil, they represent evil, they front for evil, they coordinate evil and help it be all organized and efficient. They provide evil with dental plans and stock options and retirement portfolios. And Angel took their offer to let him run the place, knowing that they gave it to him because they figured they had a lot better chance of turning him bad than he did of turning them good.”

He stood up from the chair, if only because he couldn’t properly wave his arms while sitting. “Those guys, they’re worse than demons, they’re humans — most of them, technically — who help demons victimize other humans, and I’d burn their offices to the fucking ground if I ever got half a chance … and you were there and you were sponsored by those white-collar assholes and lady, what you think of me isn’t even on the LIST of things I care about.”

She sat regarding him, her face clear of expression, for almost a minute before saying, “Well, I can’t fault you for not saying what’s on your mind.”

Xander let out a breath and quite a bit of tension, and sat down again. “Look, I got the guys upstairs to run as much of a check on you as we could in the last hour. Art student, living with your sister — who’s a nurse — and helping look after your niece … Throwing in with demons doesn’t match with driving a twelve-year-old Civic, especially when you keep driving it for months after the evil law firm takes you under its wing. On paper, you look okay, and yeah, I know from experience that ‘werewolf’ doesn’t automatically mean ‘bad’. But, whether or not W&H managed to pull Angel over to the Dark Side, they were bad folks themselves. So, we’ve got concerns.” He gave her a tilted look. “Also, there’s the sudden Mexican vacation. A few of us are wondering about that.”

Nina nodded. “He sent me away. Angel, I mean. Tickets for all of us, me and Jill and Amanda. He … I don’t know what was going on, but I think something was about to happen, and he wanted us to be far away from it.” She didn’t actually move, but seemed somehow to shrink where she sat. “He said if he … if he made it through whatever it was, he’d come for me.” She looked to Xander. “I heard about the things that happened in Los Angeles after I left, riots and deaths and mass hallucinations, the governor calling in the National Guard … and that was almost three months ago, so I guess that means he didn’t make it.” Her eyes fell. “I came here for a break, for a change. I wasn’t ready to go home yet, wasn’t sure it was safe for me or Amanda or Jill, but the longer I stayed there, the more I couldn’t think about anything except him being … gone.”

Which brought up the next item on the agenda, the thing Xander had hoped he wouldn’t have to go into. “Nina,” he said, “I’m pretty sure I know something you don’t … and some of it, I’m pretty sure you’re not going to like.”

*               *               *

Telling Nina that it had, in fact, been Angel who had captured her and brought her to one of the new Council’s holdings, was every bit as awkward as Xander had anticipated. Not to mention that Deadboy was now out there, somewhere in London, ‘reconnecting’ with Buffy (and Spike, incredibly, also in the mix somehow). The quarter-pounder had to be stone-cold by this time, and he was debating whether it could be resuscitated with a microwave or if it was just time to play Taps. “Alive,” Nina said at last. “Angel is alive.”

“If you want to call it that,” Xander said … then, at her look, “Sorry, can’t help myself. Something about him just rubs me the wrong way. Always has. But I’ve got some idea how you feel about this.”

“Do you?” Nina challenged. “He changed my life — no, he pulled my life back together when it had fallen out from under me. I knew he had commitment issues, but I was sure he … he cared for me as much as he was capable of caring. And he not only didn’t come to me, like he said he would, he didn’t even call to let me know he’d survived.” All her calm couldn’t hide the pain. “So, I guess that shows me about where I rate.”

“No,” Xander said. “These people, you can’t judge them by any sane standard.” She looked to him with what wasn’t hope but clearly wanted to be, and he went on. “I’ve only heard rumors about what really went down in L.A., but it wasn’t small potatoes. Anybody who got out of that … well, it might have taken them time to recover. And they might have had hunters after ’em, or thought they did, and didn’t want to make any connection to you. Or Angel might even have gone into another of his self-torturing brood fits and felt like he didn’t deserve to have somebody like you in his life, or that he’d just bring bad stuff into yours.”

Nina dismissed that with an angry gesture. “None of those things stopped him from falling right back in with his old girlfriend.”

“Tell me about it!” Xander almost spat the words, and he reined himself in; apparently some wounds, no matter how old, never stopped aching. Once he was sure he had control again, he went on. “Like I said already, I have some idea how this feels. Angel split from Sunnydale in ’99, and I don’t think Buffy had seen him half a dozen times since, but the moment their paths cross again …” He shook his head. “They operate in a different reality, they warp each other into their own orbits, they make each other crazy and they make everybody around them crazy, and the only way to deal is to just sort of check out whenever they get together.”

“It isn’t that easy,” Nina said.

“Never said it was,” Xander agreed. “But it really is that simple. And for those of us on the sidelines of their grand drama, it’s pretty much the only option we’ve got.”

Nina drew a long breath, and said, “Okay. So what now?”

“Well,” Xander said, “I’ve kinda let go of the thought that you might be some kind of experimental mutant werewolf Wolfram & Hart was trying out, and you may have changed on a non-full-moon night but you did change back with the daylight, so I’ll bring Godfrey down from the front desk and we’ll let you out of here. After that, well …” Consulting with Willow would have been the obvious next step, but she was out making merry with Buffy and Angel and Spike. It wasn’t that Xander had been deliberately excluded, Willow had promptly texted him the news and an invitation to join them, but that wasn’t a reunion Xander was remotely interested in attending.

Angel was bad enough, but for the horrendous train wreck that had been Spike to come locomoting into Buffy’s life again … and, naturally, she’d jumped straight back onto the Insanity Express …

Xander stood up. “After that,” he finished, “we’ll wing it. We do a lot of that in the hero biz.”

He started for the stairs, still considering the situation and the woman in the cell. Xander had a keen appreciation of women, but that appreciation had been conditioned by the ones who had figured most prominently in his life over the last several years. Buffy, Willow, Cordelia, Faith, even Anya … they weren’t just lookers, they were lookers in a distinctive way. Nina was pretty in a more conventional fashion, and consequently quite a bit less interesting. All the same, Xander was beginning to get a sense of … sadness, and depth, and character, that went beyond the plastic attractiveness of cheerleaders and party girls. This was someone who had been yanked out of a comfortably normal life, and somehow found herself coping anyhow. Now, who did that remind him of …?

He had the door at the top of the stairs most of the way open before his eye registered what was in front of it, but his reaction was fortunately quicker than his perceptions; he pulled the door shut again (quickly, and quietly, not all the way because he didn’t want the click of the lock to signal his presence), and soft-footed his way back down the stairs. “Back,” he whispered forcefully to Nina. “Back away from the bars.”

“What —?” she began.

“Back!” he ordered, still in that harsh, urgent whisper, and she did as instructed. He was already at the door of the cell, turning the band of the watch on his wrist so that the back was facing outward. “Wil is going to be so pissed,” he muttered; with his thumb he sketched a downward-pointed triangle on his forehead and on the back of the watch. Then, still without raising his voice, he intoned, “Chutu kaiith!”

A blade of white light lanced out from the turned watch and past his closed fist, four inches wide and a foot long. Xander directed the blade against the upper hinge of the barred door, his gaze tense and concentrated. The metal resisted, the cutting light operating like a chainsaw through hardwood: effective, but not easy going. Xander forced it, powering through that hinge and then starting on the lower one. “What’s happening?” Nina insisted.

“Shh!” he hissed; then, still pushing on the light-blade, he whispered, “Demons upstairs. Little ones, five feet or under, but I saw close to a dozen. Rodney was down, I think he was out cold instead of dead but we can’t gamble that he managed to get an alarm out.” The blade flickered and faded with an inch still uncut on the lower hinge. “Crap!” Xander breathed; then, grabbing the higher part of the door, he started wrenching it back and forth, trying to break the hinge remnant with angle and leverage.

Understanding, Nina seized the bars from her side and added her own efforts to his. The last part of the hinge snapped, and together they pulled the door away and propped it against the outer bars of the cell, rather than letting it fall with a clang that would have alerted the raiders upstairs. “This way,” Xander murmured, leading Nina toward the open corridors opposite the stairs. She followed, swift and light, without objection or hesitation.

Not without question, however. “Where are we going?” she asked.

“Away,” Xander told her. “Away from whatever is happening upstairs. This place, it’s warded, and the same stuff that shields us from scrying or spirit intrusion also blanks out cell phones. We have to get outside somehow.”

“Do you know these tunnels?” she wanted to know.

He shook his head. “Till three hours ago, I didn’t know there was a downstairs here. Two hours before that, I didn’t even know this building existed.”

She let out a vexed breath. “Great.” Then: “Who’s Will, and why will he be pissed?”

“Wil,” he corrected, still low-voiced. “Willow. We cover different parts of the world now but she’s really protective. I’m, well, there’s something about me that makes magic not stick so well, but she’s managed to give me a few things that I can call on if I’ve got nothing else.” He gestured with the spent watch, still turned outward. “This was the only one I happened to have with me, I didn’t expect London to be as lively as the Kalahari Basin. And since it was only good for a minute, Wil would want me to save it for an emergency, for actual combat, but …” He made a what-can-you-do gesture, not easy while running.

This wasn’t actually a tunnel complex, but a series of connected rooms, most of them cluttered with packed boxes or stacked furniture or other items there was no time to inspect. Only the steady low lighting allowed them to continue on with relative speed. Nina, he noted, seemed to be breathing a lot more evenly than he was. “The demons back there,” she said. “Just before we made it into the tunnels, I could … it felt like I could … smell them.”

Ohnotgoodnotgoodnotgood. “Wonderful.” He tried to think through the implications while he struggled with a door that didn’t want to budge: not locked, just stuck in the frame. Nina grabbed it and tore it open with impatient strength. Yet more wonderful. “There was something in the report,” he said, wheezing just the least bit as they resumed their flight. “They, Buffy and Angel and Spike, they mentioned having a small problem with some minor demons while they were trying to carry you out. Yorkies, Tork-chucks … no, Tsjorkics. No big deal, but they put it in the report because Spike knew about these demons and he said they weren’t usually combative. This …” He stopped talking long enough to catch a few breaths. “This could be a coincidence, entirely different groups of little demons, but I wouldn’t be wanting to bet on it.”

“But what would they want with me?” Nina wanted to know. “The only other time I ever dealt with anything like this …” Again that characteristic grimace. “It was humans, and I was supposed to be a gourmet treat at some underground fine-dining club.”

“Please,” Xander gasped. “I don’t have time to barf here.”

Moving from one door to another, they hadn’t been able to follow a straight course, but now they came to what must have been a corner of the building. Another staircase led upward, narrow and stacked with boxes and small crates as if it were a set of shelves. Xander began pulling down the obstacles, still trying to operate quietly but moving more recklessly now, and Nina joined him. They cleared a path and forced their way upward and “They’re coming,” Nina said. “They’re close.”

Xander couldn’t hear anything, but he didn’t doubt her, didn’t even wonder if she was being warned instead by smell or some inner awareness. He led the way up, checking the doors on successive floors: all locked, and solid, and even if they could have been broken open, it would have taken time he was afraid the two of them couldn’t spare. “The roof,” he said. “If this goes to the roof, if we can get outside, I can try to make a call.”

The stairs led to the roof, but that door, too, was locked. It was also flimsier than the others; Nina shattered the lock with a kick, and as they emerged onto the tarred roof, she pushed the door closed again and braced herself against it. The differences that had been gradually accumulating in her were more obvious now: her movements had a feral quickness and fluidity, her eyes were dilated wide, and she looked to Xander with a direct intensity much like he had once been able to see from Oz. “We’re here,” she declared. “Try your phone.”

Taking command, another difference. Xander pulled out his cell and hit the first number on speed-dial, still watching Nina. “You good?” he asked. “I can see something’s happening with you; are you on top of it?”

She shook herself. “It’s like last night,” she said. “Not as strong, or maybe I just noticed it sooner —” The door shuddered as something crashed into it from the other side; Nina was jolted forward, but she set her feet and pushed back. “I’ve been watching myself,” she said to him. “It … gets stronger, as they get closer, but I think I can hold it back in the daytime.” Another crash, but her stance was solid now and this one didn’t move her. “If I feel myself losing control, I’ll jump off the roof. Don’t worry —” This at his expression. “— it isn’t far enough down to kill me, not if I’m even part wolf by the time I hit. But … that will leave you alone up here with them.”

Xander looked at his phone. The readout said SERVICE NOT AVAILABLE. “Damn. I guess we’re not far enough outside the wards.” He ran around the edge of the roof, looking downward. “No fire escapes. Okay, I’ll help you hold the door —”

“I wouldn’t,” she said. “I think it’s, it’s better if you keep a distance from me.” Her vitality was increasing as he watched, that bristling intensity almost wreathing her in energy. “This … I can fight them, I know I can, if they break out you need to just get to that corner and stay out of the way —”

A multitude of impacts from behind her now, Nina was holding fast but the door itself was beginning to come apart. “They’re a pack hierarchy,” she panted. “It’s all around them, it must be pheromones, it’s their challenge time and that’s only for them but I keyed in on it somehow —”

Xander looked around, questing desperately for any kind of weapon or tool. He was bare here, to make it through Heathrow he’d had to pack away all his custom gear and now he didn’t even have a sheath knife. Over at the far edge of the roof a rickety TV antenna was secured: long obsolete now, abandoned, he ran over and twisted it one way and another until it came loose. Lightweight aluminum, no heft or tensile strength and almost useless but it was still something …

“— and it brought me out, and they caught my scent, we got mixed up with each other and now they have to confront the wolf —”

The door split and broke, and Nina jumped away to give herself room, swinging around to face the demon throng emerging. Xander had caught only a glimpse before, and a better look didn’t improve the impression. A Tsjorkic was the size of the average female gymnast, with a gecko face and wattles like a turkey’s under the ears and chin; each arm had two elbows, and the four-fingered hands were tipped with stubby nails that wouldn’t really qualify as claws but looked like they could do some undesirable damage. Naked, all but sexless, covered in small purple scales (Buffy would have said lavender, or violet or mauve or some such) … individually no more formidable than a Rottweiler, but there were almost two dozen of them, and their focused determination was far more intimidating than any purely physical attribute.

Xander started forward with the antenna, and Nina lifted her hand in a peremptory gesture without looking around. “Don’t,” she said. “This is pack business. You’ll only make it worse if you interfere.”

He held his place, as commanded, but protested, “I can’t let you take them all on by yourself.”

“It won’t come to that,” she said, all her attention still directed at the Tsjorkics in front of her. “That isn’t how it works.”

A single Tsjorkic pushed its way to the front: three or four inches taller than most of the others, its shoulders thickset with muscle, scars prominent on its arms and face. Nina stepped back, giving ground, and the other Tsjorkics spread out to make a semicircle arcing around the two of them.

Xander had some memories of pack dynamics from his brief hyena experience, and he was beginning to understand. Keeping his voice low and soft, he asked, “They’re seeing you as the alpha challenger?” If so, that might mean she would only have to fight one of them. “But … if you take him on, and win, that would mean you’re in charge of the pack, wouldn’t it? Is that what you want?”

“It isn’t,” she answered in the same low tone. “It definitely isn’t. Now stay back and stay quiet.”

The lead Tsjorkic raised its arms and emitted a series of grunting coughs. Nina responded with a snarl. The leader hunched and straightened, hunched and straightened, and the sound it made could have been called a wail if not for the heavy underlying aggression. Nina hunched … but didn’t straighten. Then she hunched more, then she crouched, then she went to her knees and rolled to lie on the tarred roof, hugging her arms to her chest and curving her body to expose her throat.

Xander watched, holding his breath. He got it now, it made sense, he might even have tried it himself in her place, but that didn’t mean it wasn’t a gamble. The leader stood motionless for several seconds, then padded forward. Xander saw that the toes were elongated, the nails at the ends thicker and more dangerous-looking. He gripped the antenna, tensing; if those nails went anywhere near Nina’s throat … or, God! what if Tsjorkic pack imperatives demanded that the dominant male mount any submissive female —?!

The Tsjorkic leader placed its foot on her side, bore down until Xander could hear Nina’s breath squeezed out of her. Then the leader raised its head and shrieked, like something that might have come from an eagle (if the damn thing was twelve feet tall!), and the surrounding Tsjorkics jumped and hooted in excitement. Then the scene broke, demon bodies streaming back out through the stairwell door, and Nina and Xander were left alone on the roof.

He waited. She waited. Then she rolled to her knees and stood again, body oriented toward the empty door while she glanced back toward him. There was tar on the back of her shirt, and the print of the Tsjorkic leader’s foot showed plainly on her side; her complexion was splotched with tension and her hair was tousled and fell half-over her face, but her eyes were bright, bright.

She had been nothing more than a pretty girl: conventionally pretty, nice to look at but ordinary in her own way. There was nothing ordinary about her now. She had faced a pack of demons, and prevailed by yielding, and what she turned toward Xander was something he had seen many times before, on many many many women:

The face of a warrior.

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